Have a cold or the flu? Stay home, says expert

And other tips from a UAlberta nurse practitioner to avoid spreading your illness

Too many people go to work or school sick with the cold or flu when they should stay home, says a nurse practitioner at the University of Alberta.

"I can tell you, working in a family practice setting seeing people sick with cold and flu every day, staying home is just not something that's talked about or suggested typically," said Susan Prendergast, a faculty lecturer at the U of A's Faculty of Nursing.

"But for those of us working in a large building or with the immuno-compromised, one of the best ways to prevent infection of others is to stay home."

Though there are no solid statistics on how many Canadians don't call in sick when they are ill, various corporate polls suggest it's more than 50 per cent. More research is needed to determine how improved measures aimed at reducing virus transmission in workplaces, such as encouraging workers to stay home when sick, may result in increased productivity, said Prendergast.

"But we also need policy to encourage a culture shift so people take the day off, when possible, instead of infecting others," she added. This is especially true given recent reports of a particularly bad cold and flu season for Canada.

Need for culture shift

Guilt is one of the biggest drivers for not calling in sick (when financial or academic obligations aren't at play), according to Prendergast. "I know for my colleagues, we think about how our patients and peers will struggle without us."

"When nurses do go in to work when sick, they can wear a mask to help avoid infecting others, but in other occupations that's just not possible," she pointed out. "People would wonder why a grocery clerk or your bank teller is wearing a mask."

That's why the stay-home message needs to be promoted by government to bring about a culture shift-especially in the business world, said Prendergast.

"Our faculty, for example, is very good at sending out messages that remind staff to stay home when sick, if possible. But it's not something you typically see in the business world," she said.

"A lot of people feel they will be judged for staying home. But everyone needs to understand that other people's health is at risk here. If there aren't financial or other urgent reasons for going to work when sick, then don't."

Seniors and children are particularly vulnerable to complications arising from a cold or the flu.

She encourages students who are ill to decide on a case-by-case basis with their faculty to determine how missing a few days of academic responsibilities may affect them, and how they might be able to make up lost days.

Other ways to prevent spread

Getting the flu shot is also among the top ways to prevent getting sick-and spreading infection to others if you do get sick, said Prendergast.

So is using proper handwashing technique, said Nicholas Ashbolt, a professor in the U of A's School of Public Health. "There's evidence to indicate why fewer than five per cent of people are doing a proper job handwashing."

"I can't emphasize enough how important it is to keep your stress levels low during cold and flu season," added Prendergast, who suggest making sleep and rest a top priority, as well as avoiding stressful situations and making time for stress-reducing activities, which can be anything that brings enjoyment to your life.